The Importance of Jesus Tradition in Understanding Paul

Kathy Ehrensperger writes

I consider it a necessary and fruitful enterprise to explore the significance of such research results that demonstrate Paul’s embeddedness in Judaism when dealing with the issue of the relation between Jesus and Paul, or, to put it another way, of the relation of the Jesus traditions as remembered in the Gospels and the Jesus as remembered by Paul and his team in the Pauline Letters.

So thrilled to read this in her essay “At the Table: Common Ground between Paul and the Historical Jesus.” I have earlier voiced the opinion that Paul’s theology be thought of first and foremost as influenced by and indebted to Jesus traditions (since the Gospels were written after most/all of Paul’s Letters). I think that the recent push to read Paul within Second Temple Judaism broadly will be misguided insofar as it ignores this foundational hermeneutical task in understanding his thought. So in some respects, Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which sees Pauline theology as a brand of Second Temple Judaism richly rethought around Jesus Messiah, is a step in the right direction. Ehrensperger’s essay in Jesus Research volume two continues by pointing out the rich agreement between Jesus tradition in the Gospels and 1 Corinthians on the subject of table fellowship / meals.

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A Brief Academic/Literary Biography of N. T. Wright

A BIOGRAPHY OF NICHOLAS THOMAS WRIGHT

N. T. Wright, if nothing else, is an impressive scholar. He has written extensively in New Testament studies and has received nine honorary Doctorate of Divinity degrees from various universities, including Durham and St. Andrews – the latter university is where he currently resides as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity.[1] He is presently working on four extensive projects, one of which will be the fifth book in his highly acclaimed Christian Origins and the Question of God series and is due in 2014 or 2015; another volume will be a commentary on Philippians to be published in the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series, also tentatively due in 2014.[2] Recent publications have been an incredible sixteen-hundred page work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which was published in two volumes; this book was also co-released with a collection of essays, previously published by Wright on Paul, titled Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013; and further intended to be co-released is an almost four-hundred page work by Wright on recent Pauline scholarship titled Paul and His Recent Interpreters, now scheduled for November 2014. This amounts to about two-thousand five-hundred pages on Paul. Considering these recent labors it is nothing short of amazing that Wright is closing in on the quickly approaching publication date for the forthcoming fifth volume in the series covering the gospels.

There has not yet been a meaningful personal biography published of Wright though his curriculum vitae, which is available through his unofficial webpage ntwrightpage.com, reveals much about his scholarly life. His curriculum vitae does state that Wright is married (since 1971), and has four children and three grandchildren.[3] Wright was born in Northumberland, England on December 1, 1948.[4] He was primarily interested in classical literature and the New Testament as a young man, achieving a Bachelor of Arts in classics from Exeter College, Oxford in 1971. His second Bachelor of Arts, this time in theology, was awarded in 1973. This degree, completed at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, prepared Wright for ordination as a priest in the Church of England.[5] Both degrees were first class honors. Wright received the Master of Arts in 1975, presumably also in theology, and his Doctorate of Philosophy in New Testament at Exeter in 1980 under the famed professorship of G. B. Caird (whose influence on Wright’s work is still evident).[6] Wright’s dissertation, “The Messiah and the People of God,” argued for representative/incorporative messiahship in Romans.[7]

The Church and the Academy – Together

Wright ambitiously embodies a critical concern for bringing together history and theology,[8] and the academy and the church. In one brief autobiographical piece, he movingly writes that: “Alone, I continued to read the NT in Greek and the OT Hebrew day by day, constantly finding a combination of personal address and intellectual stimulation which I have never been able to separate. (I was once advised to keep separate Bibles one devotional and one ‘academic’. Fortunately I took no notice.)”[9] Wright’s concern for reading Scripture outside of any traditions drives his many fresh readings that so many find stimulating or frustrating depending on the vantage point.

Christian Origins and the Question of God Series

Early in his career Wright desired to write scholarly works on Jesus and Paul, but it became clear to him that to do so would require significant housekeeping. This is how Christian Origins and the Question of God got started. In the Preface to The New Testament and the People of God Wright states “The result is a project which, though still focused centrally on Jesus and Paul, is also inevitably about the New Testament as a whole.”[10] Because of the limitations of the present biographical sketch, each of the subheadings which follow afford only a short description for each volume in Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Focus, therefore, is given primarily to each volume’s most distinctive features. Comments on Wright’s latest work Paul and the Faithfulness of God will be given in a later paper and are omitted here.

Story-Based Knowing

In volume one Wright fashions an impressive hermeneutical and historiographical methodology. Although subsequent volumes in the series elaborate on the narrative critical realism outlined in The New Testament and the People of God, the initial volume earned its distinctive place among all the rest for the method’s first presentation. Wright spends over one-hundred pages defining his methodology in Part II’s “Tools for the Task.” In sum, the method is a story-based knowing composed of both a literary-historical, narrative worldview synthesis and an epistemology which critically embraces the reality of external objects, objects truly existing external of sensory input, justifiably called critical realism: “…I suggest that we must articulate a theory which locates the entire phenomenon of text-reading within an account of the storied and relational nature of human consciousness.”[11] Further, “This critical-realist theory of knowledge and verification, then, acknowledges the essentially ‘storied’ nature of human knowing, thinking and living, within the larger model of worldviews and their component parts.”[12]

Return from Exile[13]

In the second volume of the series, Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright interprets a significant amount of the parables of Jesus within his famed return from exile motif, including the parable of the sower which is interpreted by Jesus already, but which Wright boldly corrects.[14] Jesus’ teachings on faith, repentance and the forgiveness of sins are additionally seen within the controlling narrative of return from exile;[15] and further seen through the light of his narrative retelling are the covenantal promise of a renewed heart and the Sermon on the Mount.[16]

Concerning the death of Jesus Christ, Wright explains that Jesus takes upon himself the vocation of Israel as identified in the servant songs of Isaiah. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem committed to paying the steep covenantal price for Israel’s sins.[17] The intentional sacrificial death of Jesus in turn affects a new exodus for the true Israel, the Israel who is now regathered around and identified in Jesus Christ.[18]

“Transphysicality”

Volume three of Christian Origins and the Question of God is an incredibly rich seven-hundred page treatment of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from death. The Resurrection of the Son of God is considered by many to be the premier volume of the series in terms of importance – at least until 2013 – but also considered to be the most formidable defense of Jesus’ resurrection in at least a century. The book was originally planned as the final chapter of Jesus and the Victory of God but became too lengthy, requiring its own publication.[19]

Wright speaks of Jesus’ resurrected body using the invented term “transphysicality.” This term “puts a label on the demonstrable fact that the early Christians envisaged a body which was still robustly physical but also significantly different from the present one.”[20] Wright explains that for the evangelists the risen body of Jesus is able to do “some things that ordinary bodies do and other things that ordinary bodies never do.”[21] The gospels portray a Jesus who is “both recognized and not recognized, who comes and goes through locked doors, who is solidly physical, with wounds still visible, and yet who seems to belong in two dimensions at once.”[22]

 

NOTES

[1]Nicholas Thomas Wright, “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version,” accessed May 28 2014, http://ntwrightpage.com/NTW_WebCV.htm

[2]Ibid.

[3]Wright, “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version.”

[4]John J. Hartmann, “Nicholas Thomas Wright,” in Bible Interpreters of the Twentieth Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices, ed. by Walter A. Elwell and J. D. Weaver (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) 434.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 366: “An understanding of history which is incompatible with a Christian doctrine of revelation is bound to land the New Testament scholar in grave perplexities; a true theological understanding of history would not of itself solve any New Testament problems, but it would, so to speak, hold the ring within which a solution can be found.”

[9]Tom Wright, “My Pilgrimage in Theology,” accessed May 29 2014, http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_My_Pilgrimage.htm.

[10]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992) xiii.

[11]Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 61.

[12]Ibid., 45.

[13]It should be noted that Wright has conceded that his motif was too careless, at least for some parts of Jesus and the Victory of God; concerning the parable of the prodigal son he writes: “There, too, I allowed that parable to say more than it did on the lips of Jesus.” N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 68.

[14]N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 230-9; “It will not do to object that, in the parable’s interpretation, the ‘seed’ is the ‘word’” (233). Surely it does!

[15]Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; “repentance,” 248; “faith,” 260; “forgiveness of sins,” 268.

[16]Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; “renewed heart,” 282-7; “Sermon on the Mount,” 289.

[17]Ibid., 553-611.

[18]Ibid., 557; 576-97.

[19]N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003) xv.

[20]Ibid., 477-8.

[21]Ibid., 609.

[22]Ibid., 609.

 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hartmann, John J. “Nicholas Thomas Wright.” In Bible Interpreters of the Twentieth Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices. Edited by Walter A. Elwell and J. D. Weaver. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

Neill, Stephen, and N. T. Wright. The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Wright, N. T. “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version” [online]. Accessed May 28 2014, http://ntwrightpage.com/NTW_WebCV.htm.

_______. Jesus and the Victory of God. Vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.

_______. Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

_______. “My Pilgrimage in Theology” [online]. Accessed May 29 2014, http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_My_Pilgrimage.htm

_______. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.

_______. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

_______. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993.

_______. The New Testament and the People of God. Vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.

_______. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.

_______. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.